They’re not like us

As learning in the workplace becomes increasingly informal, the motivation of employees to drive their own development becomes increasingly pivotal to their performance.

This is a point that I fear many of our peers fail to grasp.

You see, we love learning. We share knowledge on Twitter, contribute to discussions on LinkedIn, read books, write blogs, comment on blogs, subscribe to industry magazines, share links to online articles, watch videos, and participate in MOOCs. We tinker with software, experiment with new ideas, attend conferences, and join local meetups. We crowdsource ideas, invite feedback, ask questions, and proffer answers. The list is endless.

No one forces us to do all this. We do it because we enjoy it, and we understand that it is critical in keeping our knowledge and skills relevant in an ever-changing world.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that not everyone does this. I’m not referring to some of us in the L&D profession, although that’s an ironic part of the problem. For now I’m referring to a large proportion of our target audience. In a nutshell, they’re not like us.

An embodiment of this concept is the 1% rule. This heuristic maintains that in a typical online community, only 1% of the members create new content, while the remaining 99% lurk. A variation of this theme is the 90-9-1 principle, which maintains that in an online space that empowers users to create and edit content (eg an intranet or wiki), only 1% of the members will create new content, 9% will edit it, leaving the remaining 90% who consume it.

Of course, these ratios assume a participating population; they don’t account for the proportion of the membership that is disengaged with the community. That is to say, not even lurking. And that proportion may be surprisingly large.

In any case, I’m not interested in getting tied up in knots over the numbers. Like 70:20:10, these are merely rules of thumb that reflect a broader truth. I also appreciate that lurking isn’t necessarily a bad practice. The consumption of content is an important element of “learning”. No argument there.

A problem arises, however, when active participation is expected. Consider an ESN such as Chatter: 1% of the organisation won’t adequately reflect the enterprise’s collective intelligence. Or a discussion forum that supports an inhouse training program: 1% of the participants will fall short of the critical mass that is required to develop a rich, diverse and meaningful discussion. In such cases, the vast majority of the SMEs are effectively holding back their expertise, and those with experiences to share are not doing so. Hence the learning experience suffers – even for the lurkers.

Another challenge we face is pre-work – or more to the point: it not being done. Of course this has been a problem for as long as pre-work has existed. However it’s becoming acute for those among us who are trying to implement a flipped classroom model. Value-add activity can not be undertaken when the face time is spent on the non-value add activity which should have (but hasn’t) already been done. It defeats the purpose.

Again, when the expectation of active participation is not met, everyone’s learning experience suffers.

Tumbleweed rolling along a deserted road.

So how can we as L&D professionals change the situation? How can we motivate our participants to participate actively…?

My poll results from Drivers of Yammer use in the corporate sector are somewhat enlightening. Indeed, I have enjoyed some success by getting executives actively involved, as well as by calling on champions throughout the business to push the barrow.

I recently asked a presenter at an e-learning conference what she does when her target audience aren’t actively participating in the discussion forums that she sets up, and she replied matter-of-factly that she reports their reticence to their respective managers. Ouch! but apparently it works.

Natalie Lafferty blogged about a paper recently published by the Virginia School of Medicine, in which they reported dwindling attendance at their flipped classroom sessions…

“In sessions where students could sit where they wanted, they were less prepared as they would typically sit with their friends and would choose their table based on fun rather than who knew their stuff. The session for some served as a ‘social catch-up’, others admitted they watched videos. There was however a difference in approach to team-based learning sessions where students were assigned into groups; they were more likely to prepare as they were more concerned about appearing stupid.”

I call the latter phenomenon “social accountability” and it appears powerful.

Jayme Linton blogged about encouraging her students to do their pre-reading by employing similar techniques such as “speed dating”…

“Speed dating allows students to interact with several peers in a short amount of time. Students talk for a short time (1 or 2 minutes) with a classmate, typically in response to a question or set of questions. After the specified time period has passed, students rotate and have a conversation with another peer.”

Dare I suggest again the major concern of the participants is their social standing?

Carrot and stick

While all these techniques evidently motivate the target audience to participate, I can’t help but feel a pang of disappointment. Because each of these motivators is extrinsic.

Whether it be ego, fear, politeness or bald-faced sycophancy driving their behaviour, I put it to you that the retirement of the motivating technique by the L&D pro would result in the cessation of that behaviour. By definition, the motivation is not intrinsic and so the participants are relieved of their incentive to continue.

Of course, an alternative is to cultivate the participants’ intrinsic motivation instead. For example, if the content is authentic, relevant and engaging, then that makes it compelling, and that should pull the participants in. However, I put it to you further that even with the most compelling content in the world, it will be worth nil if the participants are not habituated into interacting with it and with one another about it.

Which leads me to consider a hybrid approach: using extrinsic motivators to drive the desired participant behaviour, which is consequently rewarded by an experience that is intrinsically motivating. In other words, scaffolding the informal learning process with a formal structure, thereby driving the behaviour that achieves the outcome that drives the behaviour.

Perhaps over time a sustainable participatory culture will emerge and the need for such scaffolding will dissipate. In the meantime, though, we may have no choice but to dangle the carrot with the stick.

13 thoughts on “They’re not like us

  1. Dear Ryan

    I can only concur with you idea of most people in online training being ‘lurkers’ and therefore the need for some sort of ‘scaffolding’ to enhance and drive engagement.

    There is a ‘passivity’ for instance about how video is watched, learners may watch a video but you have no idea when they watch it, if they watched all of it; or even what they thought of the video so you can assess their levels of understanding and comprehension.

    There is a new video e-learning portal that provides a unique and necessary scaffolding to enhance audit assessment and compliance around the use of video. You can send an original training video to designated users with book-marked or comparatively recorded comments in text audio or video.

    Recipients can then add their own book-marked comments back in the same way. All user comments and interactions are securely tracked. You can encourage this to be done for individuals or in groups so that there can be some ongoing social interaction too. If they don’t reply within a specific timeline their responses (or the lack of them are noted).

    The platform has been developed out of Sony language lab software and is called SANSSpace

  2. Hi Ryan – The key thing with team-based learning is accountability to the group. Everyone gets their individual and team scores and there is also peer assessment. I think in some instances this forms part of the assessment process. Thanks for sharing Jayme Linton’s blog and her idea of speed dating. Following on from @mstimpfig’s comment you might also be interested in HP5 an HTML5 plugin that works with Drupal, they’re working on a WordPress plugin. I’m hoping to give this a go next semester with some of sessions that have pre-reading or pre-session materials to work through so that lecturers’ can get an idea of how many of the class have actually engaged.

  3. I appreciate and relate to this entry very much, however I was hoping for a more encouraging conclusion. Having experienced immense frustration with trying to get people to participate in internal learning communities, I certainly agree with your assessment.

    Trying to find solutions I have been advised by other social learning managers that you just need to be patient, get a few people to contribute regularly and eventually it will pick up, people will begin contributing and sharing. However, I seem to find myself posting regularly about topics that contribute to this groups’ professional development and find myself commenting about my own articles month after month and now year after year. Still waiting. Crickets in cyberspace. Is anyone out there? If you’re lurking have a little decency and just say yeah, read this, or thought it was stupid ,or didn’t agree, or what? – I’ll take it! It is good to just consider that I just don’t really understand how to appeal to these people because they are not like me and until I can make participation at least partially mandatory, this is the way it’s going to be. But I am a fool for them. I will keep trying :)

  4. Another great post. I agree motivation to learn is important and necessary to drive participation. There will always be “Legitimate Peripheral Participation” (Lave & Wegner) but we need to continually look for tools and ideas that rewards participation. Curatr is one tool that does this well by using gaming elements to reward comments and participation.

  5. I feel your pain, Darlesa.

    Apologies that my conclusion wasn’t more encouraging, but I think it underscores the fact that the nature of this problem is cultural, and culture doesn’t transform over night.

    Years of being the sole participant must be soul destroying. I think your call about having a little decency is spot on. If my colleagues didn’t possess the most basic of manners to add a like or two (or Heaven forbid, a comment), then I would ask myself whether it was all worth it. If the culture is all wrong and after being the change you want to see doesn’t work, then maybe it will never work.

    If I were in your shoes, I’d be inclined to post a message that states something to the effect of “should I keep doing this?” – Then they either chip in to say yes, or I would redeploy my efforts elsewhere.

  6. Thanks Matthew.

    Indeed I have been toying with the idea of gamification for motivational purposes. I am aware that game mechanics can be ill-used, but if used well can be a powerful agent of change. I’m keen to see how Curatr goes about it.

  7. Hey Ryan, really interesting post and questions that I have considered for a while too. it was something that Con, Helen and I were talking about recently when I happened to to be in Melbourne the same time as the May Third Place Melb meetup: just what is it that drives us to do this when most people don’t?
    I think largely, as you suggest, we enjoy it, we’re internally driven to improve and learn – and we’re also accustomed to doing this openly. I think when we’re talking especially about active participation in ESNs or open social platforms a big part of why people do continue to lurk rather than participate actively and openly is because it’s actually kind of scary. When you post a public comment or post, you’re potentially making yourself vulnerable to open criticism. Most people aren’t comfortable with this (the trick is I guess, not perceiving it as criticism but instead viewing disagreement as an opportunity for open discussion and learning).

    Another factor is that organisations (most organisations at any rate), are still set up to evaluate and reward individual performance (think professional development reviews & objectives, pay rises etc) rather than informal sharing and collaboration. And then there’s the time factor – with increasingly limited resources everyone is expected to do more with less – just surviving the day becomes the priority.

    Thus it is left to the few who are driven by their own intrinsic motivation to improve and share to be active participants (usually making time in their own lives out of work hours to do so).

    If there’s any chance of getting a broad base of active participants – particularly on open informal workplace platforms – people need to be supported to share openly by the organisational culture and leadership (and those pushing the barrel, e.g. L&D). The best incentive will not necessarily be short term extrinsic rewards, but to find ways to integrate it into people’s workflows – so that it’s not just an ‘add on’ but so integral to getting the work done, and part of the ‘norm’ that people don’t question it or feel apprehensive about doing it. Clearly that is probably a long way for most organisations – but until that starts happening I fear low numbers of active participants will continue to be the norm – and everything else just a band aid for short term spikes in participation (Yes I do wonder whether people who are extrinsically motivated to participate will ever be able to self sustain participation…no doubt some will but there are likely to be more who don’t – unless the broader organisational environment supports them to develop this intrinsic motivation).

    A couple of good posts on the Learning Cafe blog on this topic which you might be interested in too (if you haven’t already seen them before):

  8. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Tanya. I agree with everything you say, and your point about workflow is paramount.

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